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Change is in the air for Bears

by Patrick Williams | for TheAHL.com

Change is in the air this spring for the AHL’s most historic franchise.

The Hershey Bears find themselves in the rare position of sitting out the Calder Cup Playoffs this year. Since establishing an affiliation with the Washington Capitals in 2005, the Bears have qualified for the postseason in 11 of 13 seasons.

Along the way they have won the Calder Cup three times, reached the Calder Cup Final two more times, and sent a steady procession of players two hours south to Washington for NHL duty. The 2009-10 Bears set the AHL season record for wins (60) and home wins (34) along with posting 123 points, second-most in AHL history.

“We’re used to winning here,” said captain Garrett Mitchell, who has played seven seasons in Hershey.

But that success did not extend into this season, the team’s 80th. After losing several players from a group that pushed the Providence Bruins to Game 7 of the second round last May, the Hershey roster underwent extensive changes last summer.

More trouble followed when injuries cost goaltenders Pheonix Copley and Vitek Vanecek the first month of the regular season, another setback for a club in the powerhouse Atlantic Division.

It added up to a 30-37-4-5 record that landed the Bears last in the Atlantic Division, the franchise’s first last-place finish since 1983-84.

“I think that at the end of it, there are things to learn from and take from this season,” Mitchell said.

However, with the high standards set throughout the Washington-Hershey affiliation, it is expected that there could be significant changes next season.

Unfortunately for Bears head coach Troy Mann, he became the first of those changes on Wednesday when the Capitals announced that they will not renew his contract. Assistant coach Ryan Murphy, Mann’s right-hand man for the past four seasons, also will not return.

Whenever and wherever Mann might look for his next coaching job, he will have a much deeper resume after four seasons leading Hershey. He went 162-102-22-18 with the Bears, taking them to the 2016 Calder Cup Finals, and winning a division title twice. His 162 wins in Hershey rank him sixth in franchise history. He also served as an assistant coach with the 2010 championship club.

Along with winning, Mann also sent several players to Washington. From last season’s team alone, the Bears graduated forwards Chandler Stephenson and Jakub Vrana along with defenseman Christian Djoos. Forward Paul Carey established himself with the New York Rangers. Defensemen Madison Bowey and Aaron Ness spent time in Washington. Forward Nathan Walker started the season with the Capitals before he headed to the Edmonton Oilers in December on waivers. He eventually returned to the Capitals organization and landed in Hershey in January.

“I think our record in terms for developing speaks for itself,” Mann had said on that break-up day before he eventually left the organization. “Nathan Walker made his [NHL] debut. Travis Boyd is up there, and I suspect that we won’t see him again in a Hershey uniform.

“From a development standpoint, I don’t know if you can ask for anything more. But from a winning side, we know what it’s about here, and unfortunately, we’re not getting where we need to be, and that’s the playoffs.”

The Hershey blue line featured rookies Connor Hobbs and Lucas Johansen. That growth process grew more complicated when Hobbs, 21, fractured his left wrist in the first month of the season. Johansen, the 28th selection in the 2016 NHL Draft, did not even turn 20 until the season was six weeks old.

Mann cited Hobbs, who had a solid rookie season and played 44 games, as just one example of the challenges that a young defenseman will encounter in the AHL.

“The league is eye-opening for him,” Mann said of an inexperienced face like Hobbs. “In terms of how to be a pro, how to prepare, the grind in terms in the 3-in-3s, the 76-game schedule. So, it is eye-opening on a number of different levels for these young players.”

While it is known that a new face will become the 26th head coach in Bears history next season, Mitchell’s future has not been confirmed so far. Mitchell, 26, will be an unrestricted free-agent this summer. He grew up in Saskatchewan and played in the Western Hockey League for his hometown Regina Pats, but he has since set roots in central Pennsylvania.

“This is home for me,” said Mitchell. “My wife and I both love it. I’ve been so fortunate to be here for the past seven seasons.”

Whatever Mitchell’s future may be, he is staying optimistic about what lies ahead for the Bears.

“The young guys get better every year,” Mitchell said. “That’s the best part of this league.”